“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from a troubled dream he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous insect.”
—The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka
In the beginning is an idea. Ideas are seeds from which the mimosa tree or watermelon or delphinium of a story will arise. There are no rules about what constitutes a proper seed. It can be a character, a name, a situation, structure, overheard dialogue, a setting, a theme, even a vague feeling.
While passing through an obscure nook of Notre Dame Cathedral, Victor Hugo noticed the Greek word for fate carved in the stone. He imagined a tormented soul driven to engrave this word. From this seed sprang his monumental novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Ideas are everywhere. The writer of fiction must learn to search the world for these seeds.
Probably the most fertile place to look for ideas is right inside the backyard of your own life. Herman Melville drew on his whaling adventures for Moby-Dick and Philip Roth has drawn endless inspiration from his crazy Jewish family. You’ve got stuff to draw on too. If you don’t think so, look a little harder. There are probably hundreds of things in your seemingly mundane existence that, if looked at with a little insight and whimsy, could be turned into good material. Your home life, relationships, work, hobbies, chance encounters. Sure, the eccentric and exotic make for good stories, but so does the ordinary, especially in contemporary fiction, where the ordinary flourishes like a spider plant in ample sunlight. (See, I drew that image from my very own window.)
Even the little things in your life can spark a story. Let’s say you’re having technical problems with your computer, so, horror of horrors, you have to call Tech Support. Telephone hell––pushing buttons, eternal waiting, trying to reason with computerized voices, trying to explain to computer people, contemplating throwing your computer out the window. But you know what? This very situation could prove useful in a story. Perhaps a character must send a life-or-death message that can be received only by e-mail but the tech problem is making this impossible. Or perhaps the frustration of dealing with Tech Support triggers all the other frustrations in a character’s life, causing a major emotional crisis, perhaps poured out to the puzzled person on the other end of the line. You see, even the tiniest seed can sprout multiple story ideas.
Flannery O’Connor said, “Anyone who has lived to the age of eighteen has enough stories to last a lifetime.” Zoom in for a close look at some of the events and people in your past, things that have haunted you, things you thought you had forgotten. Remember that girl from the other side of the tracks in your third-grade class whom you and your friends made fun of, until you caught a poignant glimpse of her eating alone in the lunchroom, after which you bought her a bracelet? Good seed.
Search your thoughts. Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s changing philosophical views led him to write Crime and Punishment (and he was lucky enough to have spent time in a Siberian prison to help with the last section of the book). What are the things you most love? What are the things you most hate? If you were to make a list of answers to either of these questions, you would have a collection of ideas that are of passionate interest to yourself.
But the fictional version of You doesn’t have to be the whole story, or even any part of the story. Indeed, if you’re too egocentric with your ideas, your work may take on the yawning indulgence of that person who is always trying to give elaborate descriptions of her dreams (though dreams can certainly be a rich source for stories). A good writer must keenly observe things outside of himself or, as Henry James said, develop “the power to guess the unseen from the seen.” Look around at other people and imagine who they really are and what it would be like to walk around in their shoes, whether the footwear is designer heels or clunky orthopedics.
One of the pleasures of reading fiction is the way it gives a secret peek into the lives of others––those people in the passing cars or at the cash registers or on the television screens––people we may never meet. This is a bit like stealing a glimpse of a person in the nude through a window or overhearing an argument between lovers in a restaurant. Whether these glimpses are enticing or unsettling, they usually provide a certain voyeuristic thrill. On a deeper level, it’s actually very comforting to see that other people are just as lost and flawed as we are. In a way, fiction is firm affirmation that We Are Not Alone.
Learn to see, and then reveal, those secret peeks, be they about someone like yourself or someone entirely different. This is another fringe benefit of being a writer. As you search for ideas, your powers of observation (and other senses as well) will intensify. The world around you will become more alive, vibrant, multidimensional, entertaining, meaningful.
Feel free to search for seeds far from home too. You can look in a newspaper any day of the week and chances are you’ll find a multitude of seeds for stories. I’ll do it myself, right now. Granted my local paper happens to be The New York Times, but I’ll bet you could do this with most any newspaper.
Let’s see, on the front page there’s an article about the fellow who painted those dog pictures, the most famous of which shows a poker-playing pug slipping a pawed ace to a pal. This man has won very little respect or reputation, but his art is probably better known to many people than that of Cezanne or Van Gogh. Certainly there’s a story in there somewhere.
Here’s an article in the sports section about a pitcher who is semi-expected by his team to bean (hit) a batter in an upcoming game because this player beaned a player from the pitcher’s team two seasons ago. But the pitcher seems reluctant. To bean or not to bean? That’s a story.
Elsewhere. A faulty carnival ride left seventeen people hanging upside down for a period of time. A substitute teacher attacked his class with a broom. The obituaries report the passing of a gentleman who belonged to five country clubs.
Story, story, story.
You may have heard the old maxim Write what you know. The advice has merit, but it’s not the whole truth. If you want to write about a famous fashion model who befriends a lame penguin while on a magazine shoot in Antarctica, go for it, even if it has absolutely zero relationship to your own life. You may have to do some research on models and penguins and Antarctica, but it may be intriguing. How could it not be? And I would guess that even if you write about things totally alien to your existence, you will still be writing, in some way, about what you know. The tone or emotions or perspective will be your own. The truest maxim in this respect might be: Write what ignites your interest.
Don’t shy away from surprising seeds. The writer Jess Row somehow got himself stuck on the idea of echolocation, the sound-detection technique used by bats to navigate. Though he didn’t really know much about echolocation, he liked the idea and began imagining a girl who believed she had the power of echolocation, which she used to pursue the spirit of her departed mother. Following this bizarre seed, Jess created the much-acclaimed story “The Secrets of Bats.”
History is an incredibly rich source of story ideas. Toni Morrison heard tell of a slave woman who murdered her child to prevent the child from being a slave herself. Out of this haunting incident grew Morrison’s Beloved. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children was largely inspired by the contemporary history of India, the protagonist even being born at the moment of India’s independence from colonialism.
So, in addition to absorbing the world that is immediately around you, feel free to absorb the world that is around you in a broader sense, even if that takes you to other time periods or the far reaches of the universe. Ideas are everywhere, and there is literally no limit to what you can write about.
Once you start absorbing the world as a writer, your problem will quickly shift from I don’t have any good ideas to I have so many great ideas I can’t possibly live long enough to get all of them down. This is a wonderful problem for a writer to have.
So how do you know when you have the right idea, the one that’s truly worth pursuing? Well, you’ll know. People who live in New York City know that if you’re riding the subway and across the aisle from you sits a wild-eyed person wearing garbage-can couture who is clearly on his way to nowhere, you should avoid making eye contact with that person because the second you do the person will lock those wild eyes onto your soul and start jabbering about apocalypse or Porky Pig or who knows what and the conversation will continue with or without your consent for an uncomfortably long period of time. Ideas are like that person. When the right idea enters your head it will loudly and persistently announce its presence. You may acknowledge its presence right away or it may take you a few days, but you’ll know when the right idea has arrived.
Bear in mind, however, that a single big idea won’t give you a whole story. A fictional work is really an accumulation of many ideas. A single word may have inspired The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but, somehow or other, Hugo managed to cultivate some five hundred pages from this seed. He also got the idea for a noble hunchback, a gypsy girl with a dancing goat, the Festival of Fools, a mob storming the cathedral walls, and a host of other things that he skillfully wove into a multicolored, yet unified, tapestry.
Before I forget, let me remind you to write your ideas down. Most writers don’t go far without a notebook handy. The “eureka” ideas may stay with you, but once you get going ideas will start popping in your head like popcorn and you can’t possibly remember them all. The jottings in your notebook don’t have to make any sense and you won’t use every single one of them, but sooner or later some of those notes will flower into something very useful.
Now, a word of caution. The seeds you pick up from the world are just that, seeds. Once you plant your seeds in the soil of a story, let those seeds grow into fiction, not fact. Don’t confine your story to the way things really were, in a literal sense. Fiction demands better storytelling than real life, even if the fiction seems perfectly “real.” Often beginning fiction writers stick too rigidly to the facts and inevitably their stories feel a little flat or indulgent. (True, many memoirs are quite compelling, but one reads a memoir with a different set of expectations than one reads fiction with.) Lorrie Moore’s “People Like That Are the Only People Here” is a somewhat autobiographical story about a mother seeing her baby through a terrible illness. The real-life seed idea was certainly emotional enough.
But Moore chose to fictionalize the story (even though the protagonist is a writer) so she could further deepen the story’s impact. If she had not done so, the story probably wouldn’t have the shape, suspense, clarity, irony, and humor (yes, humor) that makes it so unforgettable. The fiction writer must water the soil with imagination until the story yields the maximum amount of entertainment and/or meaning.
The goal is to write a story that a total stranger will enjoy (though some writers find it helpful to picture someone they know as the total stranger). The stranger reading your fiction won’t care about you or your life or your observations. Not a bit. All the stranger ultimately cares about is a great story well told. Will you be sacrificing honesty along with the facts? No. By bending reality into fantasy you are not lessening the Truth inherent in your idea. Rather, you are increasing it. Life is a blur in which it is difficult to see anything clearly because a zillion things are going on all at once. Art is all about sharp focus.
This passage appears as part of Chapter 1 in Gotham Writers’ Workshop’s book Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide from New York’s Acclaimed Writing School